Home/Daniel McCarthy/Why Conservatism Isn’t Just Anti-Obama or Anti-Left

Why Conservatism Isn’t Just Anti-Obama or Anti-Left


In the first two years of the Clinton administration, the Democratic Congress passed an assault-weapons ban, a tax hike, and a bill criminalizing anti-abortion protesters (the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances, or FACE, Act). Clinton tried unsuccessfully to abolish the ban on homosexuals serving in the military—a rather shocking idea in 1993—while his wife championed a healthcare overhaul much more progressive than Obamacare. Today Bill Clinton is remembered as a welfare-reforming moderate, but when he had the chance he pushed the liberal agenda as far as it would go—and farther.

By contrast, when Obama had a similarly strong hand in Congress, his most left-wing accomplishment was getting onto the statute books a healthcare reform that bore striking similarities to the Heritage Foundation’s 1993 alternative to Hillarycare. Yet even some quite intelligent people will tell you that Obama is the most left-wing president in American history. He’s not even the most left-wing president in the last 20 years.

That doesn’t make him a philosophical conservative, of course. But Obama does exhibit a great deal more “stand-pattism” than ideological fervor. Progressivism itself is far from revolutionary in 2013: Obama came around to supporting gay marriage only at a time when 51 percent of Republicans under 30 do so, too. That issue—which radicals have never found very radical at all—has been debated now for two decades. And that’s still, as far as older folks on the right are concerned, the cutting edge of leftist innovation.

No left-wing economic theory is challenging neoliberalism. Obama’s program is Keynesian—i.e., it draws on ideas that were fresh 80 years ago—and its Keynesianism is tepid in the eyes of figures like Paul Krugman, who themselves are hardly Bolsheviks. There are plenty of bad ideas on the left, but they’re all old ideas.

On the other hand, the past decade has seen exciting new bad ideas arise on the right, beginning with that of fomenting revolution throughout the Middle East. We already have an excessively financialized economy, but while the left has played a considerable role in bringing that about, the notion that there’s nothing dangerous about concentrating wealth in very few hands—or that American workers should have to compete for wages on a leveled playing field with billions of people in the developing world—is characteristic of the right’s economic philosophy. If you had to say whether America was in greater danger of tilting toward communism or plutocracy, could you honestly answer “communism”?

An overpriced, hyper-militarized foreign policy that fails to protect us from its own blowback; the immiseration of the American middle class; the structural weakness of the global financial system; the diminution of privacy amid the press of technological intrusions and mass taste; and the political/cultural fragmentation that deprives society as well as government of the capacity to act—all these things transcend the late 20th-century American understanding of the left-right spectrum. If your idea of conservatism is that it’s “anti-left,” you won’t be fighting the most important battles.

about the author

Daniel McCarthy is the editor of Modern Age: A Conservative Review, and Editor-at-Large of The American Conservative. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today, The Spectator, The National Interest, Reason, and many other publications. Outside of journalism he has worked as internet communications coordinator for the Ron Paul 2008 presidential campaign and as senior editor of ISI Books. He is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied classics. Follow him on Twitter.

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